Dealing with childhood and the roots of storytelling were the unofficial themes of NACS's book and author breakfast, which featured four authors and was emceed by Parker Ladd.

Richard Ford began by thanking the booksellers in the audience "for selling my books and my colleagues' books." In a tone of awe and gratitude, he said, "You've actually read my books and put them in readers' hands."

Ford then discussed his childhood and how his family affected -- or drove -- his writing career.

"Writers are inventive explainers," he commented, explaining that he was stymied while growing up in the South in the '40s and '50s by his parents' reticence about their past and their families. In that milieu, where "old ladies who lived in Boo Radley houses would police the sidewalk" and want to know all about Ford and his ancestors, "stories made me fit in where I otherwise didn't fit in. Language could make me plausible," he said.

Ford called himself "oddly marooned" as a child, in large part by "my family's near obsessive determination to withhold any explanations from me." It wasn't so much that there were skeletons in the family closet; "my parents thought that knowing facts would increase anxities." Noting Hemingway's advice to write about what one knows, he said, "Given my family, I might never have written anything."

He was always curious, he said, and when his mother was dying, Ford finally asked all the questions about his family he wanted answers to. He was so insistent and thorough that his mother's last words were, he said, "Oh, Richard, for god's sake, will you please please please please stop asking me so many questions."

Berg on Lindbergh

On the day he was to receive a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Charles Lindbergh, A. Scott Berg began by thanking the college booksellers for "being so good to me and my boys," in other words, the subjects of his biographies -- Max Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn and Lindbergh.

He then discussed the sequence of events that led to the big breakthrough as he pursued research for Lindbergh (Putnam): the permission granted by Lindbergh's widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, to do research on the Lindbergh papers at Yale University.

As he contemplated a subject to write about after Goldwyn, Berg considered Lindbergh, but resisted because Lindbergh had left hundreds of boxes of papers that would not be opened for research until 50 years after his wife's death. Without access, his ability to write a book to his standards would be impossible, he said.

Still, his publisher, Putnam's Phyllis Grann, convinced him to do the book, even assuming he wouldn't be able to meet Anne Morrow Lindbergh. "I agreed," Berg said, deciding that "I would meet and see her, even if it kills me."

Berg then recounted that he wrote a series of letters to Lindbergh, one a month for 10 months, describing his book and ideas. He didn't receive any replies but continued writing as if he had, expanding on his theme.

Finally, after 10 months, he was invited by one of her children to visit with Lindbergh, several relatives and Charles Lindbergh's best friend in Florida. For a week, he talked with all of them. On the final day, as he was leaving, Lindbergh handed him a blue envelope containing legal permission for him to look at the archives. She also included permission to look at her papers.

Berg was elated, he said, but then went to Yale, where he discovered that Lindbergh had 2000 boxes of papers, not the hundreds he had anticipated. He spent two years in New Haven, reading and researching.

Lindbergh's story, he said, was "the greatest untold story of the century," not so much because of the feat of his transatlantic flight but for "what happened thereafter." That story marked the dawn of the revolution in communication (the first newsreels with sounds were of Lindbergh taking off and landing), a new form of celebrity, changing journalism and, between Lindbergh and his wife, "one of the great love stories of the 20th century."

McCorkle and Family

Continuing on Ford's theme, Jill McCorkle talked about how her family's approach to storytelling affected her and her writing, including her short story collection Final Vinyl Days and Other Stories (Algonquin). She said, "I don't come from a long line of literary women but I come from a long line of creative women," whose talent was evident in telling stories, cooking, sewing and other ways.

The stories she heard as a child, she said, usually began something like, "I've got to tell you what happened to poor Betty...." Always, she emphasized, "there was a hook. Eventually I heard what happened to poor Betty but usually not much more than that she had flat tire and had to call AAA." The lesson, McCorkle said: "I learned that the quickest route to the story was a boring story."

McCorkle noted that she has been asked if she writes from experience. "Quickly I say, `Yes,' but everything I've experienced growing up -- much to the distress of my friends and relatives -- is everything I've observed in the lives of others. It's the experience of our imagination. I look at and ask what if...?"

She often begins a story based on a little bit of dialogue or an image, some from the notebooks she keeps that are full of entries of small things observed. The sense of humor in her stories is only an element of them, she said. "I like getting beneath the comic veneer and getting to the darker part of character."

T'Other McCourt Holds Court

Malachy McCourt, brother of Frank, praised the "distinguished group of writers" on the dais and said, "I am an author, not a writer."

McCourt, the author of A Monk Swimming: A Memoir (Hyperion), also proved to be an entertainer, talking a bit about his childhood, his writing and being Irish and mixing in some performance art: he recited p try and led the crowd in a song.

Concerning the Irish, he observed, "In the beginning was the word, but first came the Irish." The Irish "took the language of oppression and turned it into sorcery." He added that one delightful aspect of being Irish is that "no one know when you're serious and so you get away with all kinds of shit and blarney."

Speaking of his family, he said that a "family is as sick as its secrets" and ended, "Just remember. You're never too old to have a happy childhood."